Study Guide

Poststructuralism Critics

  • Jacques Derrida

    Structure—or rather the structurality of structure—although it has always been involved, has always been neutralized or reduced, and this is by giving it a center or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin. The function of this center was not only to orient, balance, and organize the structure—but above all to make sure that the organizing principle of the structure would limit what we might call the free-play of the structure.

    Whoa, right?

    So here Derrida is giving cred to his homies who have been saying for a lot of years now that language is basically like a giant chess game—you know, limited number of moves, infinite number of combinations and all that jazz. He gets it. But he secretly things they don't really get it. When it comes right down to it, all that noise about structures and systems is still implying that there's an end to the structure somewhere—some way to get out of the game.

    And yeah, that's maybe comforting or something, but it's time to cut the crap. When you pretend that the structure has an endpoint somewhere, these folks are just fooling themselves. If we really wanna see what these ideas can do, we gotta let go of the apron strings.

    With these words, Derrida launched his famous critique of structuralism. He pointed out that big-wig structuralists like Saussure and Lévi-Strauss were being self-contradictory when they described how human lives are structured by systems of meaning. No matter how much credit they gave to the systems, they always held onto some small kernel of "real truth"—the thing that Derrida would later call the transcendental signified. In a voice dripping with disdain.

    The writer writes in a language and in a logic whose proper system, laws, and life his discourse by definition cannot dominate absolutely. He uses them only by letting himself, after a fashion and up to a point, be governed by the system. And the reading must always aim at a certain relationship, unperceived by the writer, between what he commands and what he does not command of the patterns of the language he uses.

    There goes Derrida again, writing about writing. Here's he's basically saying that when a writer writes, he (or she) isn't just putting words on a page. Those words belong to a system that's been around a lot longer than the writer has, and on top of that—if we're gonna be really serious about this—that system has shaped that writer. Growing up in a language is like growing up in any other culture: it defines how you see the world.

    So let's agree that when writers write, they're using a system they don't fully control. How could they? And our job, as readers, is to find the places where control breaks down. The places where the system, not the writer,is the one doing the writing.

    Why's It Matter? Come now. This is deconstruction's quintessential method. If there's one thing Derrida loves, it's to point it out when writers have NO idea what's going on. But keep in mind, Derrida's not just doing this to be a jerk (well, maybe a little). The "system" he's talking about isn't just language: it's all of Western culture. And Western culture, according to him, is oppressive.

    By pointing out the places where the system takes over, Derrida is waging a rebel resistance. He doesn't think we can escape the system, but he thinks it's possible to change it from within. How? By taking it apart (de-constructing it) over and over again.

  • Jacques Lacan

    I have never said that the unconscious was an assemblage of words, but that the unconscious is precisely structured. I don't think there is such an English word but it is necessary to have this term, as we are talking about structure and the unconscious is structured as a language….It is a thinking with words, with thoughts that escape your vigilance, your state of watchfulness.

    Alright guys, we've all read Freud (is what Lacan's assuming) and therefore we know the score. Being human means having an unconscious, which means having all kinds of crazy thoughts and embarrassing dreams and weird verbal tricks that we don't understand and try really hard not to show in public. We've all been there, so it's cool.

    But Lacan is trying to tell you something extra important here: if we really want to turn the psychoanalysis dial up to 11, we need to pay attention to how much Freud loved to talk about language. 'Cause folks, (Lacan is telling you), the unconscious is structured like a language. And that means that even when we're talking about our deep down inner selves, we can never be sure who's speaking. The system isn't just outside us—it's inside, too.

    Lacan delivered this paper at the same symposium where Derrida presented "Structure, Sign, and Play," and it's easy to see why the two Jacques would later squabble about who came up with what ideas first. Lacan revolutionized psychoanalysis by combining Freud's theories with insights from structuralist linguists like Saussure and Roman Jakobson. Better than any other poststructuralist thinker, he laid out the blueprints that showed just how deeply our secret selves are shaped by the languages we live in.

    For the signifier is a unit in its very uniqueness, being by nature symbol only of an absence. Which is why we cannot say of the purloined letter that, like other objects, it must be or not be in a particular place but that unlike them it will be and not be where it is, wherever it goes.

    Okay friends. Our pal Saussure taught us a long time ago that a signifier represents a kind of lack. A word points to a thing or a concept, but it isn't the actual thing or concept that it's pointing to. Whenever we use language to refer to something, we step into a system of differences—a network of gaps and lacks and ruptures where words and things never quite come together. So, this stolen letter in Poe's mystery story? It works just like that. Even when one of the characters has it, it's like it's both there and not there. Cool?

    Lacan's "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'" gives us what is (arguably) the first poststructuralist reading of a literary text. By pointing out the systematic movements and repetitive decisions that the story's three protagonists make, Lacan presents the story as a perfect illustration of how linguistic signification works.

    On top of that, he also shows how it can be taken as a metaphor for psychoanalytic analysis. Not bad for a short story written in the mid-1800s!

    Lacan delivered this seminar in 1955, but it wasn't until 1966 that it was published in his ginormous collection of essays and lectures, Ecrits. By then, Derrida's career was taking off, and deconstruction was picking up steam. For years, the two grumbled on and off about who had started to come up with their radical ideas about language first.

  • Roland Barthes

    We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single "theological" meaning (the "message" of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture…the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.

    Props to linguistics for teaching us that stories and poems are so much more than works of art made by individual people. Seriously, it's crazy how many layers of writing and discourse go into any one text! The idea of the single "author" is over. Finito. Passé. Texts are basically just antennae: writers are transmitting all of the countless bits of information that pass through them day by day. Sure, they can try to choose what frequencies they're tuning in to, but that's about all they've got.

    Barthes published this essay not long after being taken to task by another scholar, Raymond Picard, who straight up called Barthes a fraud. In 1963, Barthes had published a book of essays on Jean Racine, and instead of explaining stuff about Racine's life and culture and how it related to his works, Barthes had focused on the textual elements of Racine's work rather than the author's life and culture—in fact, he slapped on a close reading that both New Critics and structuralists would be proud of.

    Barthes's insistence on reading the work without inferring anything about it from the author's life annoyed Picard, but that didn't stop Barthes. Anything but! Over the years, he moved further and further away from caring about "authors," and spent more and more time focusing on how writers and readers and broader cultural discourses all contribute to the making of texts. Inspired yet?

  • Michel Foucault

    We should reexamine the empty space left by the author's disappearance; we should attentively observe, along its gaps and fault lines, its new demarcations, and the reapportionment of this void; we should await the fluid functions released by this disappearance. In this context we can briefly consider the problems that arise in the use of an author's name. What is the name of an author? How does it function?

    Uh oh, more author talk. Is he alive? Not really. Is he dead? Maybe. So he's what, a zombie? Um, no, more like a function. In a nutshell, Foucault is pretty much all for talking about texts without authors, but still finds it pretty handy to refer to writers' names while he's at it. That's why he gets at the whole function thing.

    But first, things are obviously getting pretty confusing, so we should take a step back. What's left now that we've gotten rid of the author? Did anything new get stuck in its place? And hey, let's not shy away from the big question here: is the name of an author still useful at all?

    Sure, it's no surprise that Barthes' essay "The Death of the Author" raised a few eyebrows. But it also inspired plenty of serious thinkers to re-think what they were up to when they talked about lit and philosophy. Foucault's essay "What Is an Author?" was a direct response to Barthes, and he starts out by admitting that Barthes' essay made him look back on his earlier stuff and cringe. Turns out, he hadn't given the question of the author much thought. (S'okay, Foucault, we all miss stuff sometimes.)

    Ultimately, this essay argues that authors' names do still serve a purpose, even if all we really wanna think about is the convoluted matrix of the text and how hard it is to pin stuff down. So Foucault leaves us with the comforting thought of an "author function," meaning the author's name lets us categorize and classify relations between texts and think of them as filling specific spaces in our realm of thought. So what's the "function" of "Foucault"? You tell us.

  • Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari

    Here we have made use of everything that came within range, what was closest as well as farthest away. We have assigned clever pseudonyms to prevent recognition. Why have we used our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit….We are writing this book as a rhizome. It is composed of plateaus. We have given it a circular form, but only for laughs.

    Is this literary theory or an obstacle course? Or maybe some twisted joke with big words? What Deleuze and Guattari (if you can even call them that) are saying is that they took all that stuff everyone's been saying about text and discourses and how authors and unique selves don't even exist, and they turned that beat AROUND. Those silly little poststructuralists wanted a text without authors? Boom, here it is. They thought they could radicalize Western thought? Well, Deleuze and Guattari are out to uproot the whole system.

    While most of their contemporaries were applying poststructuralist theories to other people's texts, Deleuze and Guattari kicked things up a notch by writing a book that mimicked exactly how poststructuralists see the world. Nifty idea, if you ask us!

    But despite what they tell you, Deleuze and Guattari's antics aren't just for laughs: this book is literally trying to turn readers on (oh yeah, in that kind of way). Knowledge is seriously exciting for these boys. Who woulda thunk plant metaphors could make for such a party?

  • Jean Baudrillard

    The objective profile of America, then, may be traced throughout Disneyland, even down to the morphology of individuals and the crowd. All its values are exalted here, in miniature and in comic strip form….But this conceals something else...Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the "real" country, all of "real" America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.

    Are you second-guessing Goofy yet? We can think that Disneyland seems pretty straightforward when you get past the giant mice and princesses and long lines for Splash Mountain: we imagine it's just a fantasy version of America, where happy folks wander down Main Street, USA, and we can feel good about our technological know-how in Tomorrowland.

    But imagining that harmless fantasy, Baudrillard is oh-so-creepily telling us, is only fooling ourselves. Disneyland doesn't give us a brief escape from "reality"—it tricks us into thinking that "reality" exists somewhere beyond the walls of the theme park. But it doesn't. Everything we think of as being "real" is really just simulation.

    Baudrillard's argument in Simulacra and Simulation isn't just tricky to get our heads around; it's also pretty freaky. He's telling us that modern-day culture in North America has come to the point where "reality" doesn't exist anymore; we've killed it, because all we do is participate in an endless circulation of signs and simulacra that have no meaning of their own.

    So what's real then? Not much. We've created the impression of reality, but it's hollow underneath. And consumer culture is largely to blame. Who know Mickey Mouse could be so sinister?

  • Homi Bhabha

    If one is aware of this heterogeneous emergence (not origin) of radical critique, then—and this is my second point—the function of theory within the political process becomes double-edged. It makes us aware that our political referents and priorities—the people, the community, class struggle, anti-racism, gender difference, the assertion of an anti-imperialist, black or third perspective—are not there in some primordial, naturalistic sense.

    Homi Bhabha is poststructuralism's homie. And he's spreading the love beyond traditional academe, too. First of all, he's giving cred to the folks who think that "theory" is just something that privileged white people dream up in their cushy academic offices while all the real political action is happening out in the streets. But! (he says) It's not really like that.

    Theory helps us understand that it's not so simple to draw lines in the sand. East/West, First World/Third World, oppressor/oppressed—these binaries don't just come outta nowhere. They come from discourse, the way we talk about things and so often put them in those black-or-white categories—and theory helps us figure 'em out.

    Bhabha published "The Commitment to Theory" around the time that postcolonial theory and lit were just ramping up, and the essay responds to a whole whack of other voices saying that "theory"—especially the stuff that came from guys like Derrida and Lacan—wasn't about to help anyone make a real difference in the world. Like a lot of other politically-active poststructuralists, Bhabha argues that because discourse is always political, learning how to pay attention to it really is a good way to work for change. How's that for stickin' it to the man!

    "The Commitment to Theory" also introduces Bhabha's key notion of hybridity, which he argues is a more useful tool for talking about identity than concepts like "otherness" and "difference." Because identities and perspectives aren't "primordial," but discursive, they're as hybrid as the world we inhabit. Think the Prius, but humans.

  • Judith Butler

    Is there a political shape to "women," as it were, that precedes and prefigures the political elaboration of their interests and epistemic point of view? How is that identity shaped, and is it a political shaping that takes the very morphology of the sexed body as the ground, surface, or site of cultural inscription? What circumscribes that site as "the female body"? Is "the body" or "the sexed body" the firm foundation on which gender and systems of compulsory sexuality operate?

    What comes first, the lady or her egg? But seriously, this is about the concept of what it means to be "a woman"—eggs and other biological factors aside, Butler's saying that it's just as much a matter of what culture constructs as making up a woman—high heels, scared of mice, better at multi-tasking—and women often play into those stereotypes even if they don't really think mice are that scary (of course, unless they've been reading Baudrillard).

    With that whole idea that gender is constructed, Butler asks what that's got to say about the fight for "women's" interests. Was there already something political about the concept of "womanhood"? Where does identity come from? Who influences its shape? Is the human body something natural that we can take for granted, or is it shaped by culture? And that's where the mice come in.

    Butler's argument in Gender Trouble that gender isn't something that just comes naturally, but gets performed daily (eek!), is seriously mind-blowing. Her theories made a whole generation of readers sit up and take notice of all the work that goes into telling the difference between "male" and "female"—difference that isn't natural at all, but is created by discourse and culture!